Growing Up with the Monkey
Pop quiz. You are ten years old. You see a giant, fuzzy spider-of-death on the ceiling. You:
A: Run screaming from the room like the pansy you are. (Oh right, you’re ten. Even grown men are guilty of this).
B. Capture it in a jar. You’ll need it for future experiments.
C. Get extremely excited and grab your Monkey King staff for some epic smackdown times.
Wait, What? Let me explain. My brother and I, when we were children, didn’t have just your run-of-the-mill toy arsenal. No, we had honest-to-god five-foot long wooden staffs. Injuries were sometimes had. Rivers were sometimes vaulted. Which was appropriate, considering we were aping the staff of the Monkey King, which he stole from the Dragon King of the East Sea. Growing up, our cultural palate, in addition to the usual vein-clogging 90’s cartoons and video games, had a few weird-looking side dishes included by default through our Asian immigrant parents – shows about Chinese mythology, like the Calabash Brothers, who were like Power Ranger babies that sprang from gourds.
See, I thought these were completely the norm, just like I thought dumplings were the norm until the day I brought them to school once in the second grade and a girl leaned over my shoulder to yell: “EWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW! BONNIE IS EATING BRAINS!” Cue stares, self-consciousness, refusal to bring anything “homestyle” to school ever again.
They were not the norm, I now know. But I believe that this is no longer the second grade, and to show how important the Monkey King was to me and my brother’s growing up, I would love to share my monkey brains childhood with you. As shown in Apocalypse Man, eating brains is the thing to do now anyway, isn’t it?
So now pause. If you haven’t already read Wesley’s introduction to the Monkey King, do it now. It’s a great primer to the cheeky furry faced ball of flippant badassery that is the Monkey King. Do it now.
As Wesley explained, the Monkey King’s story is only a part of the larger Journey to the West saga – one of China’s “Four Great Classics.” Needless to say, all four of these works were turned in a big way into hit television series. We watched the live action adaptation of Journey to the West which was first broadcast in 1986, replete with painstaking effects and endearing costumes.
Even though the saga is meant to highlight the path to enlightenment taken by one Buddhist monk Tang Sanzang, the monkey is really what dominates the show. The actor for the Monkey King in this series remains beloved for his impish tics and mannerisms, to the point where his sons still carry out a similar tradition for New Years shows and the like.
As a child, of course my brother and I were delighted by a goofball standing on the imperial courts and tables, drinking wine from the dainty imperial porcelain, eating spaghetti by extending it two feet above his head, cackling and playing pranks by transforming into a pretty lady one moment, scrubby monkey the next. This portrayal of him remains the most mischievous and devil-may-care character I have ever had the chance to see on screen.
I was born in 1992, the next Year of the Monkey following the show. Then in 1999, an animated version of the Journey to the West was released. Needless to say, my brother and I ended up watching both shows. This portrayal of the monkey, though animated, in fact gave him a more sensitive and emotionally complex veneer.
Of course, we weren’t paying attention to that so much as singing along loudly with the opening and endings songs (it was that kind of show). What really captured my attention as far as the Monkey went was his slow process of (perceived) invincibility. Beginning from humble origins (springing from a stone) to learning cloud riding, shape shifting, cloning, water and fire breathing, and more, his story of magical ability acquisition was a giant playground for a child’s imagination. Of course, this required props. Our dad saw how enamored we were by the Monkey King’s tale and took two broomsticks, gave it a varnish, painted the ends gold, and labeled them “Golden Monkey Staffs.”
As we tromped about the house, poking holes in ceilings as we tried to kill spiders, we could pretend for a moment that we too had acquired these powers of invincibility, because the Monkey showed us how to become great. We were monkeys ourselves.
In fact, in 2004, 12 years after me, another monkey was born into our family – Betsy.
And now it’s 2014, and I’ll be working with the Sun Bros on their next graphic novel – Monkey Fist. I’ve had a chance to read the script, give some notes, and have been following their creative process on this one every step of the way. I’ll even be writing and collaborating with them on the super special “Rage Edition” that you’ll hear more about next month when the Kickstarter launches!
Wesley tells me there’s a lot more previews, sneak peaks, and behind-the-scenes stuff coming up in the next few weeks. So stay tuned! You won’t want to miss this. Trust me. This isn’t exactly the Monkey King I grew up with.